Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington on Sunday following weeks of speculation about whether he would be met by U.S. President Barack Obama during the visit. When his plane took off, there was still with no word from the White House. Finally, at the last minute, the president's staff confirmed that there would a brief meeting late Monday night.
With Obama's "trust" ratings among the Israeli public sunk below 10 percent, compared with ratings in the 70 to 80 percent range for past presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, one might have thought that Obama would seize the opportunity of Netanyahu's visit as a chance to warm the relationship with the country he describes as the United States' No. 1 ally in the region. Instead, the delayed response and brief Monday meeting were quickly deemed in the Israeli press as a full-fledged snub.
Obama is reluctant to get too close because of the roiled state of U.S. relations with the Palestinian side. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to the region last week, there was widespread criticism that her fumbling about settlements had undermined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's position, perhaps even precipitating his decision not to stand as a candidate again if presidential elections are held in January. Moreover, the far-left cohort of Obama's advisors, rallied by Mideast special envoy George Mitchell's deputy Mara Rudman, are furious at Netanyahu for what they depict as a fiendishly clever strategy that undermined Obama's diplomacy, and they want to punish, not reward, him when he comes to Washington.
Meanwhile, the center-left, pragmatic wing of the Obama team recognizes that the administration's early decision to confront Netanyahu publicly over settlements, making absolutist demands that no Israeli prime minister could accept, was a mistake, and this fumble had the added effect of hardening rather than softening Abbas's position, too.
It is a matter of record that Mahmoud Abbas participated in 18 years of direct negotiations with seven Israeli governments, all without the settlements freeze that he now insists is an absolute precondition to begin even low-level talks. Obama campaigned on a promise that he would renew U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, but what he has actually achieved so far is to return to the pre-Madrid situation in 1991 in which Palestinians refused to meet with Israelis and spoke of abandoning the two-state solution and returning to armed struggle. By comparison, a much-chastised George W. Bush, who supposedly did little for the region, presided over the 2005 removal of all Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza. During his watch, Abbas met with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for talks in 2007 and 2008 that Abbas himself characterized as among the most productive ever held.
If Obama wants to get a fresh start -- and how could he not? -- he has an opportunity staring him right in the face. Netanyahu is here in Washington. He is begging for a serious meeting, and he has every reason to want this one to be more positive than his benighted first bilateral with the new president on May 18.
Some on the U.S. side may want to use the opportunity to take Netanyahu to the woodshed, to say to the Palestinians, "See, we are being tough with Israel." That would be a profound mistake, one that would convince Israelis that their original fear that Obama is allied with the Arabs and not with Israel was correct. And it would reinforce the belief among many on the Arab side that what is needed is American diktats to Israel, not direct negotiations.
If the president wants to avoid the appearance that a positive meeting with Netanyahu means he is deaf to Palestinian concerns, a solution is close at hand. The meeting, or at least the public diplomacy about the meeting, should be primarily about Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian morass. Nothing is going to happen on the Palestinian front until their crisis of legitimacy reaches some kind of new equilibrium in January with presidential elections anyway. The Iranian issue, by contrast, is at an urgent moment and cannot long be ignored.
If Obama were to emerge from a meeting with Netanyahu with their partnership on Iran restored, all the friendly governments in the Mideast would be gratified -- from Riyadh to Cairo to the Mukata in Ramallah, not to mention the people of Israel. Renewing real U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation on the Iranian crisis is a necessity and an opportunity for Obama to undo some of the harm of past mistakes and get back on a track that may actually produce progress in the Middle East.
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and was a defendant in the recently dismissed AIPAC case. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum and a consultant to the Council for World Jewry.